You can’t fake customer-centric culture

Woman holding mask of her happy face

We hear a lot about fake news these days – what’s real and what’s fake is sometimes hard to know. That’s not the case when it comes to customers “reading” your culture.

Let me recount my experience with 3 upmarket restaurants in Sydney, Australia.

Sydney has many fine restaurants. I will compare my experience at two of these – Aria is at Circular Quay looking at the opera house and the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Jonah’s is on a cliffside on Sydney’s northern beaches overlooking Whale Beach and the Pacific Ocean. Both serve fine dining at expensive prices with excellent food.

I decided to book Jonah’s for my wife’s birthday and asked for a table next to the window overlooking the ocean. I was told this was not possible and when I asked why, I was told by the manager that there are many factors that they use to decide who have the window tables – when the booking was made, how many people are in the party, what the booking levels are for that particular day. I was making the booking more than a week in advance and on a weekday at the earliest lunchtime sitting, but still could not be told whether I would get a window table. Choices were 12 noon or 1.30pm. He said, “ we are very busy, we get tours and we decide on the day where people sit.” There was an arrogant tone in his voice so I decided to try Aria.

The call to Aria was a totally different experience. “Yes, we can give you a window table, would you like a surprise cake for your wife’s birthday?” You can choose your time of arrival – “12.30pm is fine and you can stay the whole afternoon.” Aria is just as busy as Jonah’s but you have a completely different mindset. At Jonah’s it is all about their convenience, their operational procedures, their rules for organizing tables. At Aria, it is about what the customer wants and how can they be satisfied. You cannot fake it. The customer mindset exists or it doesn’t. The customer knows this with a simple phone call.

Then there is the dining experience. My wife and I went to Pilu, a Sardinian specialty restaurant at Freshwater beach on Sydney’s northern beaches. This too is an upmarket restaurant. What impressed us about this restaurant was the staff. The sommelier knew every detail possible about the wines, the server knew exactly what was in each dish and could explain it. Both established a relationship with us by telling us about their hometown in Italy. They were not rushed, were patient with our questions, answered them fully and made suggestions. At the time of payment, the manager told us how much of a team effort was involved and how his team worked together to make a memorable experience for their guests. At the end of the evening, they asked if we would like to give them information on our birthdays and we would be offered a 5-course degustation meal free at that time. We happily signed up and provided the information they wanted.

A customer culture only exists when it is authentic and all employees are part of a happy, collaborative team, knowing that it is the customer that is the center of their world. It can’t be faked. It’s the difference between getting the business and creating advocates and not getting the business and getting bad reviews.

How do you get it? You will find many of the answers in our book: The Customer Culture Imperative.

This is why many business leaders waste half their effort and don’t even know it!

There is an old adage in advertising that says: “I know that half my advertising is wasted, but I don’t know which half”. In many cases, we know that all of it is wasted.

So it is with strategy and culture. Most senior business leaders spend considerable time on strategy – and rightly so. We do need to know where we are trying to go. But much less time – and sometimes virtually none – is devoted the other “half”: culture.

Some pundits believe “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. But that is beside the point. Business leaders need strength in both or at least half their effort will be wasted – and sometimes all of it. The strategy sets the direction and culture delivers (either well or poorly) the value of the strategy to the marketplace.

Our experience in many organizations across the globe is that the biggest missing piece is a customer-centric culture that is aligned with a customer-centric strategy. Repeatedly we find a lack of alignment between the stated strategy and what people are doing. Also, we see, more frequently, strategies that attempt to address and create customer value but the culture is not aligned with delivering to meet customer needs and desired customer experiences.

Aligning Customer Strategy and Culture

Aligning customer strategy and culture

You just need to see the disruption occurring in so many industries and almost from observation you can predict impending corporate collapse. Which retailers will survive? Which health services will prosper? It will be only those that develop a strategy centered on customer value and experience with a customer-centric culture across the entire organization that has the capabilities to deliver it.

If you have a question about the adequacy of your culture and believe you are not in the right-hand top box in the diagram, you should start by measuring it and benchmarking where you stand against the world’s best customer-centric companies. To discover the next steps on what you need to do, have a look at the groundbreaking book: The Customer Culture Imperative.

Is there a customer-centric gene?

genetic technology concept, gene engineering, 3d rendering, abstract image visual

Recently I was talking with Dmitry Pukhov, co-founder and owner of a very successful event catering company in Moscow. When I asked him about customer-centric leadership he said the core characteristic is a desire to help people that comes from the heart. He said he believes that we all have a gene that can create a drive to provide service to others. But only some people have developed this gene – through their upbringing, experience, interaction with others who use it and mentoring from customer-centric role models.

There is some scientific evidence to support this. Research shows that people who are more caring and compassionate towards others share a common gene variation linked to the receptor for oxytocin (sometimes referred to as the “love” hormone) that plays a key role in the formation of social relationships and impacts our capacity for empathy. The science suggests that those with the “GG” variant of this gene are better with people and generally more caring.

But all is not lost for those of us that don’t have the “GG” genotype. There is also evidence to suggest that compassion and empathy can be developed through socialization with people that role model it and experiences that elevate it.

I asked Dmitry why his business is so successful – it has grown rapidly over the 12 years since he founded it – and he told me it is because being customer-centric and service focused has always been the driver in his business. He recruits people that exhibit the customer-centric gene and invests in the ongoing development of the gene in all his staff.

Are you using your customer-centric gene or is it dormant? If you want to know what to do to develop it, refer to our book: The Customer Culture Imperative.

This is why superb customer experience is not consistent or sustained by most businesses.

Sad Male Professional - Isolated

Don Peppers wrote a profound article recently pointing out that most companies are not acting on building superior customer experience over the medium and longer term. He tells us that most of what is being done delivers minor efficiencies and is short-term in impact – NPS measurement that addresses the symptoms and not the cure, customer journey mapping that is not really acted on, and creation of a customer experience role or function that has no authority and limited influence across the organization. Over time this impetus dilutes and dies as senior sponsors move focus on to other initiatives. He provides some good advice on how to overcome some of these weaknesses.

In our experience, most companies, claiming to be customer focused or embarking on the activities noted above, are missing the key foundation required for sustained customer experience success – a strong customer-centric culture. The diagram below illustrates how a customer engagement culture encompassing all leadership and employees drives customer experience, which in turn creates loyalty, advocacy, and better business performance.

Customer Culture Pyramid 2017

Peppers notes, and we agree, that customer experience is a journey. It requires the capabilities that a strong customer culture delivers and needs a focused plan and commitment by senior leadership to carry it through to the medium and longer term. It requires a “customer” mindset in all parts of the organization and a deliberate commitment to embedding this at all levels and all functions as “the way to do business”.

It should begin with measurement and benchmarking of the level of customer-centric culture in all parts of the business. This highlights strengths, weaknesses, levels of employee engagement with customers, and priorities for capability building. This forms the foundation for an ongoing customer experience improvement strategy that all employees in the business can buy into and can contribute towards its implementation.

At MarketCulture we have a proven roadmap that successful companies use to build an ongoing customer experience capability that delivers consistency and sustainability – and results in sustained growth and industry-leading profitability.

How do Customer-Centric Leaders leave a Legacy?

leaving a legacy through customer centric leadership

This year I have interviewed more than 40 leaders who have been selected on the basis that they are perceived by the people who know them well to be customer-centric. Our consulting partners around the world have been the main source of connection with these leaders.

One of the common themes of these leaders is that they have a sense of purpose that they want to leave a much stronger and sustainable business through the culture they create – a customer-centric culture. Some of these leaders head up multinational businesses in various countries and regions of the world and remain in those countries for only 2 to 3 years before moving to another region. The typical tenure of CEOs in large publicly listed companies is only 3-4 years. So how do they leave a legacy?

The most customer-centric leaders know that they must embed this culture in middle management and up, down and across the business. It is only then that the business will survive constantly changing senior leadership. I have always believed that one of the keys to embedding is a valid measurement of customer culture across the organization. This creates tangibility, employee engagement with customers and targets for improvement. Measurement in tandem with rewards and recognition for customer-centric behavior and performance provides the virtuous cycle for a sustainable customer culture that drives ongoing superior business performance.

That’s why I, with my team, have invested so much personal energy into measuring and benchmarking customer culture behaviors that are the foundation for superior and sustainable business performance in today’s disruptive world.

The MRI tool, developed 10 years ago, now with a rapidly growing database is a key tool that customer-centric leaders can use to fulfill their purpose of embedding customer culture deep in their businesses that can be sustained long after they have left.

What is your leadership legacy?

This is how to become the answer to your customer’s prayers

Pope Francis at general audience

The simple answer is to make sure you know what they are praying for!

We call this customer insight. In other words, what are your customer’s needs? What are they trying to accomplish and how can you help them achieve it?

While you as the leader of your organization might have these answers, can everyone in your organization answer these questions? Really great organizations have clear answers to these questions and are aligned and empowered to deliver the experience customers value. Their leaders are what we call customer-centric leaders.

Is the Pope a customer-centric leader?

My co-author, Linden was surprised recently when he spoke with a CEO of a multinational business this month and asked him who came to mind as a customer-centric leader. He immediately answered: “the Pope”! Linden said: “Tell me more”.

He then went on to tell explain that a customer-centric leader must be prepared to take risks and he or she must go out and meet with customers and spend meaningful time with them questioning and listening. This type of leader must be prepared to be challenged and also to challenge the current status quo and visit customers in the most difficult markets. This person needs to be authentic with customers and employees through an ability to communicate personal experiences that are relevant and create belief in their followers. He said the current Pope does all these things. He travels widely across different national cultures, talks with his “customers”, takes risks particularly with personal safety and is prepared to question current dogma in the Catholic Church. He comes across as an authentic person with those he meets and how he communicates to the world at large. It got me thinking. Can we learn something from the Pope about customer-centric leadership?

This type of leader must be prepared to be challenged and also to challenge the current status quo and visit customers in the most difficult markets. This person needs to be authentic with customers and employees through an ability to communicate personal experiences that are relevant and create belief in their followers.

He said the current Pope does all these things. He travels widely across different national cultures, talks with his “customers”, takes risks particularly with personal safety and is prepared to question current dogma in the Catholic Church. He comes across as an authentic person with those he meets and how he communicates to the world at large.

It got us thinking. Can we learn something from the Pope about customer-centric leadership?

This is how successful companies ride the waves of digital disruption

Wild blue

The tide of change from disruption is not just one wave, but a set of waves that continue to roll in and disturb the status quo in so many industries. These waves cannot be resisted but must be ridden by companies that want to survive and prosper. This is clearly seen in the retail sector and in services industries such as travel, transport, banking and insurance, health services and energy.

This sea change in business is now eliminating at least two options that so many established companies have relied on to survive.

One is “omission bias” that occurs when leaders worry more about doing something than not doing something. This has a psychological basis where we can see and measure the results of a bad move, but do not measure the costs of a move not made. However, when investments in customer culture and customer experience are not made, we can measure the impact of reduced customer retention and lower customer lifetime value to the business. These omissions to invest are clearly measurable in terms of their business impact.

The other is “loss aversion”. This is a risk averse approach of “playing not to lose” rather than “playing to win”. Psychological experiments in decision-making show that for most people the pain of loss is about double the pleasure of winning. Corporate culture has a direct impact on whether “loss aversion” is the dominant cultural characteristic. In those companies where “failure is an option” and people are empowered to make decisions and learn from their mistakes, then the loss aversion option is much less significant in how decisions are made. As an example, Amazon is continually experimenting and through “mistakes” learning to increase customer satisfaction and create new markets.

Its latest “mistake” occurred when the Amazon Alexa app apparently mistook a conversation by some young girls in Texas for an online order for a doll house and some cookies! I am not sure who made the “mistake” in this instance (you can decide), but there are lessons for Amazon regarding how they enable ordering via the voice activated Alexa AI system.

The most customer-centric leaders I have interviewed are all prepared to take calculated risks – a combination of curiosity of how to do things differently and better for the customer and the use of data and evidence that acts to provide the “calculation” of the risks. This is why we seek to measure the strength of a company’s customer culture because it provides both the quantitative measure of risk and the qualitative feedback from employees that provide many of the answers as to how customer value and experience can be improved.

The MRI is a unique tool to help leaders take calculated risks to ride the next wave of disruptive change, then the next and the next.